Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Politics makes us mean and nasty

Fascinating and depressing.

Mill hoped that participation would make citizens more concerned about the common good, and would entice them to educate themselves. He hoped getting factory workers to think about politics would be like getting fish to discover there is a world outside the ocean.
20th century sociologist and economist Joseph Schumpeter tendered a grimmer hypothesis about how political involvement affects us: “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in away which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

We now possess over sixty years’ worth of detailed, varied, and rigorous empirical research in political science and political psychology. The test results are in. Overall, Schumpeter was largely right and Mill largely wrong. In general, political participation makes us mean and dumb. Emotion has a large role in explaining why.

“Reasoning” can actually undermine rationality. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2010) puts it, “…reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments." In short, the evolutionary purpose of “reasoning” is not so much to turn us into scientists who can discover how the world works. Rather, it is to give us the power to influence, manipulate, and control one another. As a result, when it comes to politics in particular, when we confront contrary points of view from our own or evidence that shows we are wrong, we tend to react by getting angry and becoming more extreme in our views.

For instance, when people are (for reasons unrelated to politics) sad, angry, joyful, this corrupts their ability to think clearly about politics. How you evaluate political information, what conclusions you draw, depends upon your current mood. How you respond to evidence depends upon how you are feeling. Experiments show that emotion causes us to ignore and evade evidence, or to rationalize political beliefs.

Philosophers seem convinced that organized group deliberation will deliver a wide range of positive moral and psychological benefits. But what deliberative democracy does to us depends on our psychology, on whether we are inclined to develop into Hooligans or Vulcans. Of course, deliberation enlightens would-be Vulcans. Vulcans apportion belief according to the evidence and have no dogmatic loyalty to their beliefs. But we can expect deliberation to make Hooligans more entrenched in their pre-existing beliefs. Hooligans will just ignore, jeer at, and dismiss contrary evidence, digging in their heels and getting angry at the opponent.

When groups are of different sizes, deliberation tends to exacerbate conflict rather then mediate it. Status-seeking drives the discussion. Deliberators try to win positions of influence and power over others. High-status individuals have more influence, regardless of whether the high status individuals actually know more. During deliberation, people use language in biased and manipulative ways. As Mendelberg concludes, “in most deliberations about public matters”, group discussion tends to “amplify” intellectual biases rather than “neutralize” them.

In short: people “deliberate” on political matters like Hooligans, not like Vulcans. Some might wonder, if deliberative democracy does not work, then what does? Unfortunately, the answer might be nothing.

I would say that this indicates the nature of the debate is wrong. Debates driven purely by emotion clearly don't work. Neither do debates driven purely by facts, because that view ultimately ends up with humans as a bunch of meaningless atoms. What is needed is a form of debate where emotions and reasoning moderate each other, not dictate one another. Which is not at all easy to do.

In short, the reason people are mostly ignorant and biased about politics is that the incentives are all wrong. Democracies make it so that no individual voters’ votes (or political beliefs) make a difference. As a result, no individual is punished for being ignorant or irrational, and no individual is rewarded for becoming informed and rational. Democracies incentivizes us to be “dumb”.

An interesting assessment. I'm not sure I agree, because there are social rewards and punishments of a sort for winning and losing arguments, but it's interesting all the same.

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